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Interview Fri May 10 2013
In the food industry, few accolades are as meaningful as a James Beard Award. It's the equivalent of an Academy Award or in this case, a Pulitzer Prize. This year's MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award went to The Reader's Mike Sula for his wonderful article Chicken of the Trees, our boy's "annual jihad" against urban varmints fucking with his rooftop garden, and his revenge not sweet but savory.
Sula took home the much deserved award after having been nominated twice prior. His writing being at this extraordinary level at least two other times, as they say at the Oscars, "It's an honor just to be nominated." And it is -- but it's even better to win. Three, apparently in this case, is the charm.
I caught up with pal Sula to talk to him about emboldened squirrels and more.
First off, congratulations. When I finished reading the article I knew it was Beard worthy. Loved the graphic as well. Coincidentally the daughter of a chef buddy of mine had recently told me of trapping and eating her first squirrel somewhere in the wilds of Connecticut -- so I sent the link to them bragging about my friend Sula. For the record, your friends and fans are extremely proud of you.
Thank you kindly. I'm humbled by the goodwill of both friends and strangers. Staggered, really. People always talk about the chummy, collaborative atmosphere among Chicago chefs, but at its heart that's really true of the food community in general here.
I know going into it you were very low-key, so much in fact that your friends had a small surprise gathering to honor you with their sincere best wishes just in case it was a threepeat. Win or not, we wanted you to know you're a world class journalist in our eyes. So now that you've won, how if at all do you think this will change things?
Things were different this year in the sense that the party helped take the anxiety out of the run-up to the awards. I was slightest bit jaded too after losing twice before. The cliché that "it's an honor to be nominated" is certainly true and it feels great up until the point that you lose. As hard as you try to put on a brave face, I can't deny that it stings when it happens. Going into it this time I was relaxed and almost unconcerned. I felt like I'd won already, since the party was organized as a mock awards ceremony -- which, as the winner of the Gold Bond Award for the Freshest Junk, you know very well. I hope Gapers Block gives you a chance to explain why someday -- you'd probably get a product endorsement.
Doubt that's gonna happen. It would make for an equally great graphic though.
One thing that began to change even before the awards was that I'm going back to writing more features. For most of my career at the Reader I was primarily a feature writer. Restaurant reviewing was a means to explore the city and stay active between stories. I'll still be reviewing restaurants, but stepping back just a bit to write more narratively, which was what I did primarily ever since I started there.
Your job, eating out on someone else's dime and writing about food, would be a dream come true to so many, myself included. Of course that's an outside perspective. What's it really like? Run down your week for us.
I spend most of my days sitting at my laptop writing and procrastinating. But at night I'm eating out three to five times a week. Whenever possible I try to get out to the further reaches of the city and suburbs to explore underexposed restaurants and stores. That's how I started writing about food, but the necessity of blogging for the Reader every day made that exploratory time ever more precious. I like nothing more than just driving around aimlessly in the middle of the day and pulling over when something catches my eye. I once spent a year or so eating at every Harold's Chicken Shack in the city. I eventually wrote a story about it [PDF] but in the process I found about a dozen other stories and restaurants.
Give us a little background. How'd you get started writing? Were you always food obsessed or did that come later? How'd you end up at the Reader?
I've always been interested in food and cooking. But my first journalism job was as the music editor for a now defunct weekly in Pittsburgh. I really started out writing features and profiles about everything under the sun. I moved to Chicago in 1995 with a girlfriend who'd been hired as a staff writer and from that moment on all I wanted to do was write for the Reader, which offered maximum freedom to its writers. I started freelancing and got hired as an editorial assistant, and eventually I was writing so much that they made me a staff writer. We had a restaurant critic at the time but I noticed a gap in our coverage. I saw this wealth of food culture in the city that not many professional journalists were covering. There was Monica Eng at the Trib and that was about it. I began exploring all these little mom and pop places with very specific niche clienteles as a way to find stories. I started writing about them both narratively and critically, and eventually I was writing about food almost exclusively because there was just so much good material.
What most interests you in the current food scene, and what least interests you?
I've always been most interested in people that make and distribute food outside the margins of what's generally acceptable to the establishment -- in our case the bureaucratic morass set up by the City's departments of Health and Business Affairs. Food is a basic human right and I'm always most sympathetic to the person who is willing to do whatever it takes feed themselves and others; the eloteros* who get harassed by the cops, the househusbands selling bacon and sausage out of their home kitchens, the garage taquerias, the basement distillers, the raw milk runners. It's a challenge to write about them, though, because exposure can mean disaster.
I like specialists. I'm bored to death by dilettantes. Nothing fills me with dread like having to go to some cavernous River North parade ground with pizza, sushi and tacos on the menu.
You forgot Caesar salad and creme brulée. Who/what inspires you?
I have a core group of friends who are experienced and intrepid eaters. They're my chief inspiration.
Any plans on writing a book?
There's some talk, but it's too soon to say anything.
I didn't know you were a musician but I met one of your ex-band members at your wedding. Do you find any similarities with music and writing? Do you listen to music when you write and if so, what?
"Musician" is a charitable word. I played guitar in a punk rock band called -- oof -- Citizen Pain. Our most popular song was about a giant, sentient man-eating fern. We were fairly reviled in Pittsburgh. But we liked it like that.
I suppose I write like I wrote songs back then. Occasional bursts of inspiration, bracketed by long periods of hand wringing and head banging.
I'm usually too neurotic to listen to music when I write. But if I do it's probably something droney and repetitive, like the Spacemen 3, Sigur Ros, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. On the other hand, if I'm cooking I like to crank stuff like Black Flag and the Misfits. I've been on a Slayer binge since Jeff Hanneman died.
Ballpark how many restaurants you've eaten at in the course of your career.
Oh man. Math. I have piles and piles of menus in my office. It's an untenable mess. A fire hazard. But the truth is, not enough. There are always places I wish I could go to, or go back to, but I'm too busy going places I have to go to that I end up regretting. Boo-hoo, right? That's a first world complaint about the best job in the world.
I've gotta ask. Last meal, what would it be?
I'd start with a bottle of George T. Stagg and finish with a giant bowl of spaghetti carbonara.
Ah yes, food fit for the gods.
* Eloteros: street cart purveyors of sweet corn topped with assorted condiments most often: butter or margarine, mayonnaise, chile powder, grated cotija cheese and lime aka heart attack in a cup (or on a cob).
About the Author:
Alan Lake has been a professional chef for nearly three decades and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.